Friday, August 29, 2008

Ravenstah says he is not investigation target

When suspended Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Pat Ford resigned his post he did so with a fiery letter claiming there was a culture of corruption in the Raventsahl administration and he no longer wanted to be part of it. Later, rumors of an investigation into charges of corruption surfaced and during a news conference mayor Luke Ravenstahl said as far as he knows that is not true. He says neither he nor anyone else in his administration have been contacted by investigatory authorities. Ford’s attorney Lawrence Fisher says his client “has cooperated with authorities on maters of mutual interest.” He refused to elaborate on that comment. It has been reported that lowest responsible bidders were passed over for city contracts in favor of firms close to the Ravenstahl administration. Ford has been suspended with pay since allegations that he improperly accepted gifts from Lamar advertising surfaced.

Ravenstahl says he is not investigation target

When suspended Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Pat Ford resigned his post he did so with a fiery letter claiming there was a culture of corruption in the Raventsahl administration and he no longer wanted to be part of it. Later, rumors of an investigation into charges of corruption surfaced and during a news conference mayor Luke Ravenstahl said as far as he knows that is not true. He says neither he nor anyone else in his administration have been contacted by investigatory authorities. Ford’s attorney Lawrence Fisher says his client “has cooperated with authorities on maters of mutual interest.” He refused to elaborate on that comment. It has been reported that lowest responsible bidders were passed over for city contracts in favor of firms close to the Ravenstahl administration. Ford has been suspended with pay since allegations that he improperly accepted gifts from Lamar advertising surfaced.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Pole Dance Instructor Sues For Permit

A pole dance instructor is suing a Butler County township over whether her studio should be considered an "adult entertainment" business. The American Civil Liberties Union says Stephanie Babines was improperly denied an occupancy permit in Adams Township. The classes involve no nudity, no spectators and no sexual activity. The lawsuit says the township is denying Babines' First Amendment right to teach and communicate ideas about art and fitness.

Greensburg Diocese and Local Colleges Linked

The Catholic Diocese of Greensburg has inked an agreement among its two high schools and the three catholic colleges in the area to allow students to more easily earn college credits while still in high school. The high schools will work with Seton Hill University, Saint Vincent College and Mount Aloysius College to build freshman level classes that will be taught in the high schools with a guarantee that the credits will transfer. Diocese spokesperson Jerry Zufelt says this fits with the diocese’s educational vision of “life long learning in formation.” He says the goal it to allow parents to put their children in a catholic pre school and move them through every grade and now into a local catholic institution of higher learning. He says that will not only help build the church but also the community by keeping the kids in the area while saving parents tuition money. The three schools will also offer special scholarship opportunities to graduates from the two high schools.

Work on Film "Production Park" starts in Strip

Mogul Mind, LLC has begun work on a 300,000 square foot movie production studio. The building on 31st street in the strip will include sound stages, office space and post production facilities. The goal is to accommodate all aspects of film and television production in one place. Mogul Mid feels there is a growing demand for this type of facility with more productions coming to the region thanks to state tax breaks. The first phase of the facility is to be open early next year. Industry insiders say it is important to be able to place all aspects of a production other than location shooting under one roof to save time and money.

PA applies for abstinence only funds

The Pennsylvania Department of Health is applying for $1.7 million in federal grants for abstinence-only sex education. In the past the Rendell administration has not applied for the grants partially because the administration does not think anything short of a comprehensive sex education is adequate. Health Dept. spokesperson Claudine Battisti says this does not represent a shift in policy. She says the state is still not spending any of its money on abstinence only education it is only serving as a conduit for the federal dollars. The federal grants require a 43-percent match and the applicant will have to provide those funds without state assistance. Battisti says the department wants to be fair to schools and community groups that want to emphasize only avoiding sex before marriage.

FACT Referendum Illegal Solicitor Says

Allegheny County Solicitor Mike Wojcik issued a legal opinion yesterday declaring that the referendum proposed by the group Friends Against Counterproductive Taxation (FACT) should not be placed on the November ballot.

FACT had gathered over 44,000 signatures on a petition for their question which asks if voters are in favor of slashing the the drink tax from 10 percent to 0.5 percent.

Allegheny County Council also issued their own referendum question to be placed on the ballot which reads, "Shall the county enact an ordinance to increase real estate taxes in order to repeal the alcoholic drink tax?"

Wojcik says FACT's referendum is illegal because it violates the Home Rule Charter and does not suggest an alternative source of revenue in place of the drink tax. He also ruled that the question proposed by council is legal. His opinion will be forwarded to the elections panel--which consists of Common Pleas judges Jill Rangos, Christine Ward, and Dwayne Woodruff--who will review both FACT's and county council's question.

FACT member and owner of the Carlton restaurant Kevin Joyce says he is not at all surprised by the solicitor's opinion. Joyce also expects a long legal battle between the two sides with the ballot question case potentially going all the way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Either side has a chance to appeal any election panel decision within 7 days.

CLPGH Shows Off New Hill Digs

The building at the corner of Centre Avenue and Kirkpatrick Street is set to open Oct. 25 with a kick off event that will feature August Wilson’s play cycle. It is the first new library opened by the system since 1980. The $3.15 million project will replace a basement branch at Centre and Dinwiddie Street that the library now rents from Allegheny Union Baptist Association. To help highlight playwright August Wilson’s ties to the Hill District on wall of the building will hold a 10’ by 7’ map with 12 numbered sites, each corresponding to a location in on of the plays. The building is silver LEED certified. Among the green aspects of the building is the use of natural light, "low emissivity" glass windows, a roof made of reflective rubber, and the use of recycled materials throughout the building. The building is part of the "Libraries for Life" capital campaign which has completed 7 others projects. Library officials say the hill branch along with other recent projects in the neighborhood shows the “new face” of Center Avenue.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Pittsburgh Wages Lower Than Average

The average pay in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area is slightly lower than the national average, according to new figures from the U.S. Labor Department. On a scale that puts the national average at 100, Pittsburgh rated a 96 last year. That means wages in the Pittsburgh area are four percent lower than the national average. Philadelphia fared better: it rated a 105. Johnstown averaged an 85.

Regional Economist Gerry Perrins says for the Pittsburgh area, the pay difference is significant but not drastic. And he notes that pay is not the only reason people choose to live in a particular area; cultural amenities and climate are among other factors. He also says the pay figures do not indicate anything about cost of living.

The Labor Department also released new figures for unemployment and the Consumer Price Index, which is a measure of inflation. In Pittsburgh, both of those figures were below the national average.

Ravenstahl will vote for Obama

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl is in Denver this week for the Democratic National Convention. He says even though he supported Sen. Clinton in the primary he will cast his vote for Sen. Obama. He says he feels the party coming together around Obama and says Clinton did a good job of moving her supporters when she pointed out that the real fight was not about her but about ending the republican mistakes of the last 8 years. Ravenstahl says it is important for Pittsburghers to vote for Obama in November because he is the one who will restore funding for issues important to big cities and he is the candidate that understands the needs of urban dwellers.

Ford Resigns From URA

The suspended head of the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority has submitted a fiery letter of resignation. Pat Ford says he will leave the post when his contract expires at the end of the year. He has been on paid leave since April when it was revealed that he accepted Christmas gifts from an executive for Lamar Advertising. The company has been embroiled in a controversial contract with the city. In the letter, Ford says he and his wife (former mayoral spokesperson Alecia Sirk) “are being persecuted with no support from the administration…” it goes on to say he supported the Ravenstahl administration because he thought it had vision but could no longer support the mayor because, “ … that vision never materialized, and as I have always said, 'Where there is no vision, people perish.’ I have no desire to perish along with Luke Ravenstahl's Pittsburgh." Mayor Ravenstahl is in Denver this week for the Democratic National Convention. He says he has not seen the letter but has learned of its contents. He says he is surprised and “saddened by some of the comments in it.” He says he was waiting to hear a definitive answer from the State Ethics Commission, which was investigating Ford’s actions, before making any decision on Ford’s future. Ravenstahl says he will have more comments when he returns home and has time to read and digest the contents of the letter.

PA Imposes Fee to Collect Child Support

The Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare is now charging a 25-dollar annual fee to some families that depend on the Commonwealth to collect child support.
State Representative Kate Harper calls the fee a child support tax, and gathered parents at the Capitol to oppose the law.
Louise Marshall is a mom from Bucks County.

"When you are counting pennies, literally counting pennies, that 25 dollars is a huge, huge amount. The food stamps, the women's shelter, the food pantry all those things that are supporting me right now, that 25 dollars is a lot."

Harper, a Republican from Montgomery County, wants a do-over. She's proposing legislation to repeal the law.

The spokeswoman for House Appropriations Chair Dwight Evans says Pennsylvania could have lost hundreds of millions of federal dollars if the Legislature didn't act quickly this summer to levy the fee and meet a federal mandate. Johnna Pro says the final bill received bi-partisan support and was sponsored by a senior GOP senator.

"If Representative Harper would like a do over it's probably best that she sits down with her Republican leaders."

Pro says Harper's bill deserves discussion but it won't be a priority in the short legislative session that begins September 15th.

Schools Pay More to Bus Students

School is starting this week in many districts. And higher fuel prices are leading many districts to re-think how they get students to school. The Plum Borough School District is spending 54 percent more on transportation this year. In North Allegheny, school lunch prices are increasing to help the district pay for fuel. Some districts in other parts of the state are ending after-school service or charging students for field trips. Selina Pittenger with the Pennsylvania School Bus Association says the state should step in to help. She says the Department of Education’s school funding formula has not been changed to reflect higher fuel prices. Pittenger says school bus contractors have also been absorbing some of the extra cost. If some of them have to shut down, she says it could jeopardize student safety and increase traffic as more parents have to drive their children to school.

State Loses Funds to Track HIV

Pennsylvania is one of eight states no longer participating in a national program that helps track the spread of HIV. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said those states did not meet requirements to remain in the program. Pennsylvania had participated since 2005. Pennsylvania Department of Health spokeswoman Holly Senior says the state will continue to track the number of people who have HIV, but will no longer have the kind of detailed data that the CDC program provided. The CDC program can distinguish new infections from old ones, helping researchers better track the virus. The monitoring system recently indicated that the annual infection rate in the United States was 40 percent higher than previously thought.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Pitt Gets Grant For Bird Flu Vaccine

Scientists at the University of Pittsburgh will use a $3.6 million National Institutes of Health grant to test a vaccine for the H5N1 avian flu virus. That strain has been spreading around the globe and has most recently been found in Europe. Lead investigator Dr. Ted Ross says unlike other avian flu vaccines, which are partially developed from live viruses, the vaccine being developed in Pittsburgh is based on a “virus-like particle” that lacks genetic information to reproduce. That potentially makes it safer. The vaccine has been tested in mice but will now be tested in non-human primates. The team will study the vaccine for three years and another five-year trail in humans would be needed before the vaccine could be used outside of testing. Ross says if the vaccine works it could be easily modified to fit whatever new strain may be bouncing around the globe at the time. He says it starts to provide protection in a week meaning it could be given to people living in an area already suffering from an outbreak.

"Perspectives" thwarts hackers

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have a new way to help keep internet users safe from people who want to steal your private information. The new application known as “Perspectives” helps users of the web browser Firefox know when a web site should be trusted. Increasingly hackers are tricking internet users into thinking they are at a secure website in an effort to get credit card and account numbers and passwords. Researcher David Anderson says right now warnings given by web browsers are often ignored. Perspectives takes those warnings, compares them to the security certificates seen by other users of the same website and then either lets you through with a mild warning or gives you a much more stern warning to stay off the site. Anderson says with more people taping into free wi-fi services at hotels and coffee houses the potential for hackers is growing. Anderson hopes the Firefox version will be popular enough to encourage Microsoft to work with CMU in developing the application for the much more used internet explorer.

Health Department to Provide Bus Idling Signs

The Allegheny County Health Department will provide signs to local school districts to remind their bus drivers of the 2004 Bus Idling Law which sets the limit at 5 minutes for diesel school bus idling. The law was enacted to protect children from the harmful emissions of diesel exhaust. ACHD spokesman Guillermo Cole says children are more susceptible to the dangerous emissions because they have a higher rate of respiration than adults. Cole says children take in 50 percent more air per pound of body weight than adults. 15 Allegheny County school districts already have the signs in place and others have requested they be installed on their campuses, as well. Citizens are encouraged to help enforce the Bus Idling Law by reporting violations to the Allegheny County Health Department at 412-687-ACHD.

Casey, Rendell to Address Convention

The spotlight this evening at the Democratic National Convention will focus on Senator Hillary Clinton but 2 of Pennsylvania's superdelegates will address their colleagues. U.S. Senator Bob Casey Junior, whose father, the late Governor Bob Casey Senior, was banned from speaking at the 1992 Convention because he was pro-life, says people on both sides of the abortion issue can find common ground in Barack Obama's candidacy. He says both sides want to reduce the number of abortions.
Governor Ed Rendell, who was likely Senator Hillary Clinton's strongest supporter in Pennsylvania, says he's still a little disappointed that she is not the nominee but he will work to get voters in the state on board with Obama by doing more personal visits. He says he's convinced Senator Clinton will throw her full support behind Senator Obama.
Delegate Valerie McDonald Roberts, Allegheny County's Manager of Real Estate, is pledge to Obama, but says Clinton will play a large role in bringing the Democrats together.
Washington County Commissioner Bracken Burns is attending his second Democratic Convention. Burns supported Clinton in the Primary but he also likes Obama. He's worried that some Pennsylvanians will not vote for Obama because "he looks different." Burns says he's "disappointed by that, embarrassed by that but not naive enough not to have noticed it."

Monday, August 25, 2008

Dropout rates fuel violent crime

State Director of the Fight Crime: Invest in Kids Program, Bruce Clash, says there is a correlation between high school dropout rates and incarceration rates. Dropouts are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested than graduates, and eight times more likely to be incarcerated. By increasing graduation rates by 10 percentage points, it is estimated that 150 murders and almost six thousand assaults will be prevented in Pennsylvania annually. By supporting strong pre-kindergarten programs shown to increase graduation rates, it also supports preventing future crimes. Clash says it's better to expose these things to vulnerable children early on.

Democrat Convention Is Underway

The major speeches are yet to come but individual state meetings and discussions about the party platform are underway at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Pennsylvania has one of the largest contingents with 187 delegates. However, 2 veterans remained home, former Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff and Lieutenant Governor Catherine Baker Knoll, due to health reasons.
Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato supported Senator Hillary Clinton in the Primary but said it wasn't difficult to back Senator Barack Obama. Onorato says he's looking forward to the speech of Pennsylvania U.S. Senator Bob Casey because that shows Obama is inclusive. Senator Casey's father, the late Governor Bob Casey was barred from speaking at the 1992 Convention because he was pro-life.
Mike Crossey, a teacher from suburban Pittsburgh, says Hillary Clinton's plan for public education is "right on point" but he also likes Obama's education proposals. Crossey says to win Pennsylvania, Obama must spend more time in the state and let voters know how he will turn around the economy.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Republican House Members Respond To I-80 Toll Proposal

Republican Members of the State House submitted a letter to the U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters regarding the application by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to toll I-80. The letter is intended to convince the secretary not to toll Interstate 80. The letter cites multiple reasons why I-80 should not be tolled and claims there are other more profitable proposals that would fund infrastructure needs. Also, the letter adds that the Turnpike Commission did not accurately represent the economic impact the proposed toll would have on the I-80 corridor and in fact it would be much worse than the proposal says.

Kerosene Recall Gets Aid Of Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency

A massive kerosene recall is being aided by the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency because of the difficulty in reaching communities that do not use modern forms of communication. The Amish and other religious groups rely on kerosene to aid in their cooking and in heating their homes. Communities like the Amish do not have televisions and may not be aware of the recall. PEMA is working with community groups and volunteers to inform those who may not be aware of the recall. The recall which was issued Wednesday spans parts of four states. The size of the recall was decided because Pittsburgh Terminals corporation could not determine the extent of the danger posed by the improperly mixed kerosene.

PennDot Testing Soy For Use On Roads

PennDot's local office is testing a liquid soy product to be used as a sealant for roadways in the region. The soy product is not yet ready for use but looks promising according to PennDot Engineer Mike McCart. The liquid soy is being tested as a sealant that prevents deterioration of roadways much the same way staining decks improves the life of the wood. McCart said there is no timetable as to when the soy would be available for use on state and local roadways because a key part of the testing is making sure the sealant will last the test of time.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Equitable Gas Looks To Raise Rates

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission voted 5-0 to investigate a proposed 10% increase in gas rates by Equitable Gas. The investigation is standard procedure for the commission, and is to be presented by March, 30 2009. Equitable Gas claims that the rate increase is needed to cover the rising operation and maintenance costs, as well as to recover the costs of current and future investments aimed at increasing the quality of service for it's customers.

State House Bill Calls For Reduction In State Legislature

A local state lawmaker's bill to reduce the size of the state's legislature got a public hearing in front of the state house government committee. Representative Mark Mustio R-Moon, introduced the bill in 2007 but has seen it largely ignored. The bill calls for a 20% reduction in size of both the State House and the State Senate resulting in an increase of 15,000-17,000 constituents per district.

Mustio says this bill is important and should pass because Pennsylvania has the largest full time legislature in the country. The bill would result in a constitutional amendment, so in order to pass, the bill would need to be approved in two consecutive sessions of both the House and Senate and then need to pass a voter referendum. Mustio said he will support this bill for as long as it takes to pass.

Drink Tax referendum challenged

Councilman Chuck McCullough and Smithfield Cafe owner John Petrolias filed a lawsuit Wednesday against a referendum bill passed by County Council August 5th. Petrolias thinks it's tough times for any tax hike. He says like the way people do, government should "make do with what you have." Petrolias says the hospitality industry is always targeted and a broad-based tax to support the Port Authority is more justified.

However, the referendum asks voters whether they want to eliminate the 10 percent drink tax in exchange for increased property taxes.

Company Issues Kerosene Recall

A Coraopolis-based kerosene distributor has issued a broad recall after some of its product was tainted with gasoline. Using the contaminated kerosene could cause an explosion. Pittsburgh Terminals Corporation says anyone who has purchased kerosene since May 1st should return it to where they purchased it. The company also plans to set up reclamation centers to give customers another place to return the kerosene for a full refund. The recall affects customers in western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, northern West Virginia and southwestern New York.

The contaminated kerosene was found at a kerosene supplier in Erie. Company spokesman Bob Post says he's not sure how it was detected or whether anyone was hurt. The problem was traced back to a malfunctioning valve, which has since been fixed. Pittsburgh Terminals has tested some supplies and found them to be safe, but Post says they're issuing a broad recall just in case. He says it's impossible to tell whether your kerosene is tainted just by smelling or looking at it.

Post says the company is especially concerned about getting the word out to the Amish, since they are less likely to get the message through the media.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Natural Gas Boom Poses Challenges for Municipalities

The natural gas boom in Pennsylvania is posing new challenges for municipal officials. Drilling rigs and other heavy equipment have destroyed roads. Some residents also say the noisy operations cause a disturbance 24 hours a day. Municipal officials are also considering lease offers from several gas companies, but many of them have not negotiated these types of deals before. Their constituents are getting similar offers, and are looking to local leaders for advice.

A workshop tomorrow will address some of those challenges. The Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors is connecting township officials in nine counties with state officials via video uplink. Representatives from the Department of Environmental Protection and PennDoT are among those who will participate.

Drilling in Pennsylvania is booming because of renewed interest in the Marcellus shale formation. The shale is deep underground in much of Pennsylvania as well as parts of New York, West Virginia and Ohio. Its presence has been known for years, but high energy prices and newer technology have made it increasingly attractive as a source of natural gas. Many gas companies are offering huge signing bonuses plus royalties to homeowners who allow drilling on their property.

Pittsburgh School Unions Take Strike Votes

Two unions representing workers in the Pittsburgh Public School District are threatening to strike. Contracts covering members with AFSCME locals 297 and 2924 expired December 31, 2006. Tuesday night clerical workers with Local 2924 voted to authorize their negotiating committee to call a strike. On Saturday, August 23, the membership of Local 297 will take a strike vote. The workers are truck drivers, food service workers and custodians at city schools. Richard Caponi, Director of AFSCME District council 84, says after 18 months of negotiations the unions need to consider a number of different options. He says one of those options is to go on strike if a new agreement can't be reached.

Theresa Colaizzi, Chairwoman of the school district's negotiating committee, is quoted as saying the strike votes are a "play to disrupt" the start of the school year. She says the district was not notified by the union about their action. Caponi says the union is not required to notify the district if they take votes. He says the union believes they can resolve their issues at the bargaining table. Caponi says he doesn't know what Colaizzi means by her comment. He says the AFSCME members do not want to disrupt anything; they want to negotiate a contract that's fair to the members, the city and school board.

A bargaining session is planned for Local 297 on August 25, and for Local 2924 on September 2. Caponi says among the issues that will be discussed is the district's attempt to have more of a say so in layoffs of union members. He says it will not be a contract written solely by the Pittsburgh School District. Caponi says once people realize that, they will meet their goal.
Classes for city school students begin Thursday, August 28.

Pennsylvania Vodka

A new Vodka is going on Pennsylvania liquor store shelves this week, which is usually of little note, but this one represents a new industry. DUQ's Mark Nootbaar has the story. Listen to the full-length story here.

Local Vodka Maker Hits stores

Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board stores are adding “Boyd and Blair” vodka to their shelves this week. The spirit is distilled in the old Glenshaw glass plant on RT. 8 using Pennsylvania grown potatoes. Only 4 distillery licenses have been issued by the PLCB. One is for a small gin label in Philadelphia and the other two are for large corporations that happen to be located in PA. Making the drink even more unusual is the fact that there are only two other commercial potato vodka makers in the US. One is in Idaho and the other is in Maine. The company received a state grant to test the idea of making small-batch, high-end vodka out of Pennsylvania potatoes. The company has sent 300 cases of vodka to the PLCB and has produced almost 900 cases this year. The still is capable of making about 20 thousand cases a year.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Governor Nominates Potential Department of Environmental Protection Secretary

Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell has nominated the CEO of PennFuture John Hanger for the position of Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection. John Hanger was a Pennsylvania's Public Utility Commissioner from 1993 to 1998 and was the legal counsel to the Public Utility Commissioner Joseph Rhodes from 1988 to 1993. Hanger says that energy conservation is one of his top goals as well as ensuring that the state makes good investments when it comes to decisions on energy. The Governor approached him about the nomination and convinced him to accept it by sharing his goals for the future of the state's energy needs. Hanger if approved by the State Senate would replace Kathleen McGinty who resigned on July, 18th.

Allegations of Police Abuse Decline

Pittsburgh's Office of Municipal Investigations is operating smoothly. That's one of the conclusions of an audit released by City Controller Michael Lamb. The audit comes 3 years after the end of federal oversight of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police. That oversight came after a lawsuit filed by the Pittsburgh Chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. which alleged unfair treatment of some citizens by police. O-M-I investigates complaints of misconduct by police officers and public employees. Lamb says there was some concern that once the federal supervision ended there would be an increase in citizen abuse by police. But, Lamb says that has not happened. The number of allegations of police misconduct dropped from 219 in 2006 to 152 last year.

Foster Child Care Conference

Foster children under the care of a relative can avoid feelings of loss. That is according to Ruth McRoy, a University of Texas professor who studies open adoptions, family preservation, and racial identity issues. She spoke at a University of Pittsburgh lecture series that focuses on social problems.

When a family relative becomes the primary parent of a foster child, it is called being under "Kinship Care." McRoy says children often have a better sense of security under this kind of care, because they are more likely to stay in the same household than children being cared for by a non family member. The majority of foster children still go to unrelated families, however Kinship Care is becoming more common. Almost 200,000 children in Pennsylvania are being cared for by a non-parent family member.

Work to Resume on Pittsburgh Casino

The new owners of the Pittsburgh slots casino have finalized financing for the project. Chicago billionaire Neil Bluhm had hoped to close on the $600 million in loans Friday, a day after the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board approved transfer of the slots license from Don Barden to Bluhm's group. Casino spokesman Dan Fee says the final details of the financing were worked out today. Fee says now Bluhm is arranging to pay the contractors and their workers who were owed $50 million. Contractors halted work on the project July 1st because they were not being paid. Fee says construction could resume this afternoon with full scale operations going by the end of the week. Fee says due to the 6 week work stoppage the casino's opening has been delayed until next August.

Labor, Business Groups Support Power Line Project

Pennsylvania needs new transmission lines in order to prevent future blackouts, according to the group Pennsylvanians for Reliable Power. The group is made up mostly of power industry, labor and business organizations. They held a press conference today marking five years since a massive blackout in the northeastern United States.

Joe Kirk with the Mon Valley Progress Council says a lot of people don't realize how much more electricity we're using today compared to 30 or 40 years ago. He says conservation is fine, but it will not eliminate the need to improve Pennsylvania's power infrastructure. Allegheny Energy, which wants to build new transmission lines in Washington and Greene counties, has said the region is at risk of blackouts by 2011.

Several residents who live in the path of Allegheny Energy's proposed Trans-Allegheny Interstate Line oppose the project. They say the lines would destroy the region's rural character, lower their property values and possibly cause health problems. The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission is expected to issue a decision on the project this fall.

CBA Signed

Community and civic leaders gathered at Freedom Corner in the Hill District today to sign a first-of-its-kind community benefits agreement. The agreement took over a year to reach, and all involved agreed that reaching the deal took a considerable amount of effort. The deal includes the formation of a master development plan for the Hill District, the creation of a community multi-purpose center, 1 million dollars from the URA and the Penguins for a grocery store, and first crack at family-sustaining jobs that will be made available as a result of the arena construction.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Pittsburgh Council Talks Merger

There were many questions but few answers as Pittsburgh City Council took up the issue of a proposed merger of the city and Allegheny County.
Council members had questions, in fact some of the invited guest witnesses had questions. Those with the answers….the main proponents of consolidation, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, County Executive Dan Onorato, and University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg who headed a study commission on a merger did not attend.
Barbara Ernsberger chairs the Pittsburgh Democratic Committee. She said supporters have given no good reason why the other municipalities are not involved. She says that means the Pittsburgh area would not be speaking with one voice if the other 129 municipalities are not included. Ernsberger also says the proposed consolidation does not address the city's debt and unfunded pensions.

Tim Stevens’ group, the Black Political Empowerment Project, has yet to take a position on the proposal, but he’s says any merger must take into account the impact on minorities especially concerning political representation and participation in any new joint police force.

Grant Irvin, policy director for the Group "10,000 Friends, an anti-sprawl, sustainable development organization, says the key issue is not whether the city and county should merge, although that might be the solution, but rather how to provide the best services to citizens. He says officials need to ask 5 questions: 1) what is the most effective way to provide services; 2) what is the most equitable way to pay for those services; 3)what inter-government systems must change in order to provide quality services; 4) what obstacles are preventing delivery of the services; and, 5) who should be "at the table."

Councilman Jim Motznik says he supports consolidation but on one big condition: all school districts in the county are joined…and all municipalities as well
The mayor and county executive wanted state lawmakers to okay a measure to permit a ballot question on the issue in November of next year. But legislators say more research is needed…and in the meantime the city and county should look at consolidating planning commissions and economic development departments.

More free student lunches in city

More students within Pittsburgh Public Schools will be receiving reduced price or free breakfasts and lunches this school year. Food services Director Michael Peck says the number of qualifying students has been steadily increasing for years, and adds that the rough economy pushes more families under the poverty line. Forty-one schools have been selected to offer free lunches to all of their students. Peck says more student participation will bring more funding to school food programs.

Vaccine Grant for Pitt to better control disease

Diseases that have been long eliminated in industrialized countries continue to spread in developing ones. Studies are being done at the University of Pittsburgh about how vaccinations can most effectively change that.

Pitt's Graduate School of Public Health received a $10 million grant from the Gates Foundation to begin a four-year study on vaccinations. Dr. Donald Burke, Dean of the Public Health School, says super computers will develop a ficticious community of people to similate realistic situations. From there they determine which properties of a vaccination are most important, such as how many people get vaccinated, how strong it is, or other criteria such as age or location that play factors.

Cause of death after taser still unknown

The lawyer for the family of man shocked with a taser by Swissvale police August 5th says the case points out what he thinks is the overuse of the device. Andre Thomas died shortly after police used a taser three times while taking him into custody. The medical examiner has not issued a cause of death pending a toxicology report. Thomas family lawyer Howard Messer says questions of whether Thomas was drunk or on drugs at the time of his death are moot because that would not warrant his “assassination.” However, the family has asked for blood samples and Thomas’s heart do to their own testing. The county has not yet responded to the request. Messer says a preliminary autopsy report from a privately retained pathologist shows numerous scrapes and bruises on Thomas’s body and some witnesses have said police used excessive force. Messer says police may need to rethink how they use tasers. He feels many are using it as a “first choice” rather than a last alternative before using a gun. The family also wants to examine the taser to see if it was functioning properly. Messer says an open inquest may be needed to get to the bottom of the case.

Port Authority Ridership Increases

The Port Authority believes higher gas prices are pushing more commuters to consider transit. Ridership was up about six percent in July. The greatest increase was on the light rail system, which saw a more than 17% jump on an average weekday. Port Authority spokesman David Whipkey says that may be partly because construction on the light rail system last summer kept ridership numbers down.

Whipkey says the Port Authority wants to keep its new customers even if gas prices fall further. He says the agency is trying to publicize how much money consumers can save by taking the bus rather than paying for gas and parking. He also says the Port Authority is working on ways to address potential capacity problems that can come with higher ridership. The agency has been holding public meetings to gain input about where bus routes should go.

Higher ridership on the light rail system can also mean greater competition for park and ride spots. Whipkey says if you're new to the system, it helps to get to those lots early, because they fill up fast.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Mental Health Treatment Studied

A State House panel is hosting a series of hearings to discuss mental health treatment across Pennsylvania.
Several mental health advocates asked the lawmakers to create programs that treat the physical health problems that come with a serious and persistent mental health illness.

Debbie Plotnick is Director of Advocacy for the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania. She's also the mother of to a daughter who battled bipolar disorder.

"I know too many folks who die in their 40s and their 50s, and these are medical conditions that are related to poverty because of their mental health conditions."

Plotnick says her daughter had dental problems and allergic reactions related to the psychiatry drugs that kept her stable. She also needed physical rehabilitation after several suicide attempts.

Plotnick say her daughter escaped homelessness, incarceration other life-shortening conditions that come with poverty because she belonged to a family with health insurance and considerable financial resources.

The House committee on Health and Human Services has similar meetings planned for Pittsburgh, Erie, Philadelphia and Scranton.

Specter says GOP Has to Win Back PA Voters

Pennsylvania U.S. Senator Arlen Specter says his party has to win back voters who switched their political affiliation from Republican to Democratic in order to participate in the April contest between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama.
Specter says he'll need those centrist constituents when he runs for re-election in 20-10. He says Pennsylvania's national political value also relies on a good mix of voters.

"If Pennsylvania becomes an all blue state like New York, no one will pay attention to Pennsylvania in the campaigning, but I think that it's in the interest of the state to have that party balance. So we are working hard to have people come back to the party."

Republican Presidential candidate John McCain was in Pennsylvania campaigning with former Governor Tom Ridge. Specter says legislative and executive experience make Ridge a solid choice for vice president.

"So there's a lot to recommend Tom Ridge, but I've know Senator McCain a long time, he makes up his own mind. Senator McCain is known for the unexpected, I wouldn't venture any speculation, too unpredictable."

Ridge says the subject of being on the ticket with McCain did not come up in a dinner with McCain and his wife.

Lawmakers Urged to Cut Energy Consumption

A statewide environmental group wants lawmakers to sign a pledge promising to work for energy conservation legislation. It's a push to get consumers ready for price hikes that may occur when electricity caps expire.
Jan Jarrett is vice president of Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future. She says the tools and programs proposed in the bill could help consumers and businesses cut their energy use by as much as 20 percent.

"That is a huge amount and it would go a long way toward keeping energy prices down."

The bill gives consumers different pricing plans, including an option that costs less for off peak hours. If the legislation succeeds, Jarrett says Pennsylvania could have statewide goals for reducing electricity use.

One provision of the bill requires utility companies to install smart meters in all homes within 10 years.

"It requires the utilities, instead of installing a dumb meter when it's time to replace for maintenance purposes it will require them to install these smart meters."

In July state lawmakers approved millions of dollars to develop and encourage more alternative energy - like solar and wind power. But PennFuture says that's just part of the equation. Jarrett says the state needs to show customers how to save money by curbing usage.

Construction on Casino Could Resume Tuesday

Construction on Pittsburgh's casino on the North Shore will not resume until at least Tuesday. Chicago billionaire Neil Bluhm and his company, Walton Group, are expected to close on $600 million in loans on Monday to help complete the project. Bluhm had anticipated wrapping up the financing yesterday. On Thursday, the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board voted 7-0 to transfer the slots license from Don Barden to Bluhm and his company. Board Commissioner Ken McCabe said revoking the original license and re-bidding the project would have been disastrous for Pittsburgh "I think the $7.5 million (annually for 3o years) to the arena, the $3 million to the North Side leadership, and the $3 million to the Hill District would be off the table."

Don Barden, who was awarded the license December 20, 2006, will now have about a 16% stake in the casino. He says he's disappointed the difficult credit market has relegated him to a much smaller position in the deal "On the other hand I'm happy for the people of Pittsburgh and the Commonwealth that this project is going to go on as I originally dreamed it. It will be a dream fulfilled I just won't receive the benefits of what we had originally contemplated."

Bluhm told the Gaming Board that his company is pouring $205 million into the project to help pay off the original loan to get work started and to pay the contractors and workers. Contractors halted work July 1st when they didn't get paid. They are owed $50 million.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Roddey Sues County Council Democrats

A lawsuit from Allegheny County Republican Committee Chairman Jim Roddey alleges that Democrats on the County Council illegally met in secret on a proposed drink tax referendum. Roddey says a meeting July 8 violated the Sunshine Act and the county's home rule charter.

The Pennsylvania Sunshine Act bars closed-door meetings when a quorum is present, with some exceptions. Democrats hold an 11-4 majority on the council, and President Rich Fitzgerald says they have held caucus meetings with enough members to comprise a quorum. He maintains those meetings were informational only, and did not violate the Sunshine Act. Still, council Democrats agreed in late July not to caucus anymore.

Roddey says when he was County Chief Executive, he was taken to task for holding a lunch to welcome new members of the County Council. He says his solicitor advised him that holding the lunch violated the Sunshine Act, so after that he made sure that he met with no more than seven council members at a time. Some Democrats contend Roddey held multiple closed-door meetings with a quorum of council members.

Commemoration of Jail Activity Center Celebrates Its Success

Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato and Allegheny County Jail Warden Ramon Rustin today celebrated the anniversary of the opening of the Gwen Elliot Child Activity Center within the prison. The warden thanked the 40 volunteers at the center for their donation of over 2,000 hours of work. Onorato says the success of the activity will allow it to be run through the operations of the jail at no cost to the Allegheny County taxpayer. Members of Gwen Elliot's family were in attendance and unveiled a portrait of the late commander to be hung in the center.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Reacts To PSSA Results

With the state releasing it's results from the PSSA exams with it came the news of the Pittsburgh Public Schools not meeting Annual Yearly Progress (AYP). The district had to meet 96 requirement that ranged from participation in the test, to graduation rates, to minority and sub groups posting substantial gains. The district met 83 of it's targets.

With the district not meeting AYP for the second year they are classified as corrective action 2. This is the worst ranking in the No Child Left Behind Act. Superintendent Roosevelt is not worried about this ranking because through discussions with Department of Education Secretary Zahorchak he says the state realizes the strong gains the district has made in a majority of areas.
One area where the district did struggle was with 5th and 11th grade reading. They did not meet the standards for proficiency in those testing areas but will focus on them in the coming year.

Penguins Break Ground on New Arena

A groundbreaking ceremony for Pittsburgh's new arena drew politicians and Penguins fans. Shovels at the ceremony had hockey sticks for handles. Team owner Mario Lemieux stayed behind to sign autographs for fans. The $290 million arena is expected to open in time for the 2010-2011 season. The development took a lot of twists and turns to get to this point. At one time, the Penguins threatened to leave Pittsburgh. It was entertaining offers from Kansas City and Las Vegas, although Lemieux says the team never seriously considered leaving. As part of the arena project, the Penguins have agreed to help support development in the lower Hill District.

State Releases PSSA Results

Pennsylvania's Department of Education released the state's PSSA exam results and the number of students on grade level has increased but there are still many challenges facing the state. Some notable positives include the narrowing of the achievement gap for African American students by 26%, Latino students by 20% and low income students by 23%.

The news was not all good, the states high schools are facing a critical time, 2 out of every 5 students in the state high schools are below grade level and at the current pace the students would not reach the 2014 goal of 100% for 40 years. Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak says the focus now needs to be on high school performance.

92% of the states school districts meet AYP targets and 72% of schools met their targets. Locally 4 Allegheny County School Districts did not meet AYP standards they are, Pittsburgh, Duquesne, Sto-rox, and Woodland Hills. Pittsburgh and Duquesne are in the most serious category, corrective action 2 for the second year and Woodland Hills is in corrective action 2 for the first year. Sto-rox is in the warning category.

Consumer Price Index Rises

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has released it's consumer price index for the first half of 2008 and compares it's results to the first half of 2007. In the Pittsburgh region the overall index shows an increase of 4.9% for all major categories. 7 out of 8 categories showed an increase in prices with the largest coming in the Transportation group and the only decline in price coming in the apparel industry. The effects of high gas prices can be seen in the increase of food and beverages as well as the remarkable 11.4% increase in transportation costs. The bureau says the transportation index's jump is the highest it has seen in the 24 years it has been recording statistics. Pittsburghers need not feel isolated because the statistics are similar across the state and the nation with Americans feeling the same money crunch everywhere.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Green Vessel arrives

One of the first green-engineered passenger vessels is arriving in Pittsburgh today, after traveling through nine states to get here. The "Explorer" is to dock next to Carnegie Science Center to be used as a "green" classroom when the Coast Guard approves the boat for local use.

River Quest Executive Director Karl Thomas says the onboard class will teach kids about sustainability; specifically about the environment and how to be "greener."

The Explorer was delayed last year when it had engine trouble while being transported from a Florida shipyard. Thomas says with new things, such as the problematic green technologies, come new challenges. He is glad the boat has now surpassed those challenges.

Kennel Owners Shoot 80 Dogs

On July 24th, Dog Wardens inspected E and A kennel in Berks County, PA and found violations in kennel sanitation and maintenance resulting in several citations. Instead of correcting the violations the owners decided to shoot 80 dogs and voluntarily close their kennel. According to PA law owners of pets can legally shoot their animal if they choose. This law would be changed though if house bill 2525 were to pass. The bill would make it mandatory for all kennels to have veterinarians euthanize their animals. The bill would still allow dog owners to put their pet down by shooting it if they so desire. No charges will be filed against the kennel owners.

Cranberry Considers Sustainability Recommendations

A new study will help guide Cranberry Township toward a more sustainable future. The township enlisted the help of the group Sustainable Pittsburgh to find opportunities for conservation and smart growth. The 200-page document includes recommendations like the purchase of recycled materials, better recycling programs in township offices, and even simple measures like turning off computers at night.

Chief Strategic Planning Officer John Trant says he knows many people consider Cranberry to be "the poster child for sprawl." But he says the township has already been pursuing sustainable initiatives that many people don't know about. For instance, about 80 percent of traffic lights in the township use LEDs, which require less energy. He also says the township's commissioners made the unpopular decision during the high-growth 1990s to require sidewalks in all residential areas. In April, township commissioners adopted five sustainability principles to guide future development. Those principles are: be distinctive, be prosperous, be healthy, be engaged, and be committed.

Group Requests Education Department Examine Enrollment Requirements

The nonprofit advocacy group the Education Law Center sent a letter to the Pennsylvania Department of Education asking them to investigate enrollment procedures in each of the state's 501 school districts. Staff Attorney for the ELC Maura McInerney says of the 278 school districts who list their enrollment guidelines on the Internet, 162 require more for enrollment than what state law dictates. Often, school districts follow older laws--some mandating the birth certificate as valid proof of age or a social security card for proof of identity--and are unaware that requirements for enrollment are much less. McInerney says the problem is widespread and affects immigrants, foster children, and low-income families the most. A list of schools whose requirements for enrollment exceed the state's will not be made public.

Convention Center Construction Rushed Controller Says

A report by Allegheny County Controller Mark Patrick Flaherty's office shows the construction of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center had issues involving budgeting, scheduling, and contracting.

It found that the county commissioned an estimated $215 million for the new building, but that costs of the construction were closer to $390 million. This was because of the "design-build" plan for the project. 80 percent of the building was planned through architectural design, while the remaining 20 percent was "built on the fly."

Flaherty says the project scheduled poorly as well. The Convention Center began to be booked for events during construction. Flaherty says a "design-build" project should not be subject to rigid scheduling.

Lastly, the report showed a problem with contracting. The Controller says that the building should have been done as an "at-risk" project like both PNC Park and Heinz Field, where the builder bears the risk of maintaining budgeting and scheduling. In the case of the Convention Center, the county bore the risk of any cost exceed the project budget and and problems incurred by missing schedule.

Flaherty hopes the report will serve as a teaching tool for future building endeavors. Currently, the construction of the $300 million new arena for the Penguins is underway. Flaherty says so far that project is following the recommendations made through the report.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Public Hearing Held On Police Zone 3 Issues

Pittsburgh city council held a public hearing as requested by the residents of the city to discuss frequent changes of the zone 3 police commander, and the low levels of staffing. Many residents from throughout the city's zone 3 enforcement area showed up to express their concern regarding low staffing that they feel is resulting in more crime and an increase in the perception of danger in their neighborhoods. Police Chief Nate Harper attended the meeting and spoke after the public had given their comments. He said he can not staff anymore officers because he is already limited in the number of officers available. Chief Harper said that the changing of zone commanders is a way to give them more experience and knowledge of the different problems that each individual neighborhood experiences. Chief Harper said the most important issue he is taking away from the hearing is that citizens and police officers need to grow their relationships.

Council Pulls Reins On Refinancing Efforts

The City of Pittsburgh is taking a step back in it's efforts to refinance debt. Shaky financial markets are the culprit and may prevent the city from obtaining nearly $3 million in savings. To add to the questions looming over the city's refinancing efforts, city council will be taking it's summer recess shortly and they have the final say in whether or not any refinancing will be done. Council is considering the idea of a special resolution that would transfer that power to the mayors office, but council member Bill Peduto says they are in a wait and see mode as of this point.

North Side United: History Shows Continental Will Deplete Area

Dozens of North Side United members, congregated on the corner of 8th Ave. and Amity St. in Homestead to protest an agreement between the Stadium Authority and Continental Development. Protesters gathered in Homestead to use the borough as an example of the devastation caused by Continental Development when it built the Waterfront. "There used to be businesses all along this street," says Homestead business owner Mike Stout, "now only three businesses are open."

North Side United Chairman Michael Glass feels the same could happen to the North Side unless a Community Benefits Agreement is signed. "A CBA is the only way to guarantee that they will fulfill their promises."

In light of strong opposition from the protest group as well as Pittsburgh City Council, the Stadium Authority recently passed a vote to sell the land between the two North Side Stadiums to Continental for about 8$ per square foot.

Glass says the deal is unfair because other land in that area has been sold for as much as $80 per square foot. Today also marked the release date for North Side United's "White Paper," a study on the effects that will be felt from Continental ownership of the North Side parcel.

Trucking Group Wants Higher Fuel Tax In Pennsylvania

The American Trucking Association has voiced support for an increase in the states fuel tax as opposed to a proposed turnpike lease and I-80 toll. The group is recommending a 10% increase in the state's fuel tax. The American Trucking Association claims the increase would result in $5.71 a month for the average motorist, and $123 a month for truckers. The truckers would also have to pay the tax if they do not fill their tanks in the state. Truckers are required to pay taxes on the amount of miles that they log in the state. The American Trucking Association acknowledges that this is a hard sell and doesn't really expect it to pass.

Lawmaker Calls Gaming Board "Incompetent"

State Senator Jane Orie of McCandless says the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board is "incompetent" and beholden to political interests. That's why she says Don Barden was granted Pittsburgh's casino license despite his history of financial problems. Now Barden is seeking to transfer the license to a new ownership group.

Orie and fellow State Senator Vince Fumo are proposing several changes to the way the Gaming Control Board operates. They want to make board members full-time employees, and bar them from earning any outside income. Board members would also have to be confirmed by a 2/3 majority in the Senate. Currently, they are appointed by the governor and legislative caucuses.

Another amendment would bar casino applicants from borrowing the $50 million license fee. Orie says that would have put Barden out of contention. Licensees would also be required to that would allow construction work at casino sites to continue even in the event of financial problems. Construction of the Pittsburgh casino is currently on hold.

Orie and Fumo are also proposing that more documents relating to the licenses be made public. And they want to prevent gaming lobbyists from making political contributions. Gaming license holders are already barred from making those gifts, but Orie says a loophole allows them to funnel payments through lobbyists.

The Gaming Control Board is meeting Thursday in Harrisburg to decide whether to transfer the Pittsburgh casino license to a new ownership group led by Neil Bluhm of Chicago.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Charter School Will Open New Science Lab

The Urban League Of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School will be opening a new science lab for its students. The lab will be used for hands-on science experiments, and is equipped with a smart board, computers, science probes, lab coats and goggles. The lab is intended to help students prepare for the PSSA exams, which are administered beginning in fourth grade. Money was raised for the lab through a combination of grants and money from the school's budget. The lab will be ready for students in the upcoming school year.

Long Waits on Port Authority Phone Line

Some bus riders say they've spent a lot of time on hold when they've tried to call the Port Authority lately. Early in the summer, ten call center employees transferred out of the department. Spokesman David Whipkey says that's stretched the remaining employees thin. Fourteen employees are usually on duty at one time. The Port Authority is training new employees, but Whipkey says that can take four to six months. The call center has a goal of a 90-second wait time. Whipkey says now, on a good day, the wait is about five minutes.

Regional Air Service Plan May Come To Pittsburgh International Airport

A new regional air service plan may soon be coming to Pennsylvania. The state's air service committee plan is in discussions with smaller regional airports to launch a pilot program that would use planes suited to fit 9-19 passengers to shuttle to Pittsburgh International Airport. The program would be run by the airports as opposed to the airlines, meaning the airports would be responsible for boarding passes, luggage, and other services. This type of program has never been seen before. The state's air service committee has been working on this project for a year and a half and recently held a meeting with representatives of four small airplane providers. Officials say ideally the service can be up and running by mid 2009.

Friday, August 8, 2008

County Courthouse Plays Host to Olympic Gold Medalist

An Olympic Food Festival was held today in the courtyard of the Allegheny County Courthouse. Visitors were treated to samples of various ethnic dishes including Chinese chop suey, Italian meatballs, and Greek stuffed grape leaves. Also at the event was 2-time Olympic gold medalist Roger Kingdom. Kingdom took home the gold in the 110 meter high-hurdles in both 1984 and 1988. He says the Olympics are about more than sports, they are about peace. He also says that they United States has a good chance at being one of the top three medal-winning countries even though many U.S. Olympic athletes are young. The Olympic games kickoff today with the opening ceremonies tonight at 7:30 EST.

Citizens Against Raising Taxes on Property (C.A.R.T.O.P.) analyze F.A.C.T.

A newly formed group wants to inform Allegheny County voters that there will be consequences to vote for the referendum on lowering the drink tax.

The people of Citizens Against Raising Taxes on Property, or CARTOP, believe that the question is incomplete and unfair to voters.

Shawn Flaherty of Flaherty Fardo says county property taxes are at their limit, but the drink tax lets a different group of people support the county.

Instead of property owners being burdened with additional tax, he asks if people who are willingly buying a drink to be willing to pay a little extra.

Flaherty says the other option to supplement lowered drink taxes would be to cut the county budget.

He speaks against FACT, who brought enough petition signatures to put a referendum question on November's election ballot to lower the drinking tax to 0.5%.

SEA Approves Hill Community Benefits Agreement

The Sports and Exhibition Authority has signed off on a Community Benefits Agreement for the Hill District. One Hill Coalition Chairman Carl Redwood says that’s an important step, but the agreement still requires signatures from the other parties involved: the city of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County and the Penguins. Redwood says he anticipates all of them will all sign the CBA by next Thursday. That’s when crews are scheduled to break ground on the new Penguins arena.

A ceremonial signing had already been scheduled for August 19th when the groundbreaking ceremony was set for five days earlier. Redwood says One Hill has always required that the CBA be signed before construction begins. The Coalition will meet this weekend to discuss a possible protest if all parties do not sign the CBA before Thursday. Still, Redwood says he anticipates a protest won’t be necessary.

One Hill’s work will continue beyond the signing. Redwood says the next step will be implementing the agreement, including making sure that Hill residents get the first opportunity to apply for jobs at the arena, and monitoring the progress of a grocery store development.

Blue Green Alliance Offers Green Tour

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, President of the Allegheny County Central Labor Council Jack Shea, and PNC Director of Corporate Real Estate Gary Saulson says there are several ways the city of Pittsburgh and developers can protect the environment. Ravenstahl says the city has already done a lot to promote green buildings including enacting the the Climate Action Plan. Jack Shea says becoming more environmentally friendly requires people to think differently. Shea says that building green structures may cost more money up front, but will save money in the long run. The Blue Green Alliance consists of a partnership between the Sierra Club and United Steelworkers. The hope is that a focus on green building will ultimately result in more jobs.

DNC to Write Platform in Pittsburgh

The Democratic National Committee Platform Committee will meet in Pittsburgh Saturday with the goal of approving a party platform that will be sent to Denver later this month. The document will voted on by all convention delegates. More than 16-hundred meeting were held in communities across the country as the platform writing committee built the document. Committee chair Michael Yaki says the platform is a “unifying document” that reflects the thoughts of senators Obama and Clinton. He says they chose Pittsburgh for the meeting because of the city’s past problems and future potential. He says they want to highlight how manufacturing jobs and their good wages, healthcare and pensions left the city and it is now ready to roar back to life with a new identity. He says the nation can do the same under the policies contained in the platform. The meeting is open to the public but only delegates will be able to speak and vote.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Population Old, But Not That Old

Allegheny County’s population is older than average, but it’s nowhere near the oldest in the country, according to new figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. That distinction belongs to La Paz County, Arizona, where 32 percent of the population is 65 or older. In Allegheny County, it’s less than 17 percent. And that figure has been dropping in recent years, although it’s expected to begin rising again soon.

Allegheny County’s Area Agency on Aging follows population trends in order to plan for future needs. Deputy Director Mildred Morrison says one of the biggest trends has been a rise in what’s called the “old old” population, or people aged 85 or older. Morrison says several factors are making that age group increasingly vulnerable to poverty. One is that people are living longer. Another is that traditional fixed pensions are failing to keep up with the cost of living. Finally, more seniors are retiring with 401(k)-type plans, which are less stable than fixed pensions.

Morrison says her agency is trying to respond to these growing trends by educating more seniors and their families on the financial challenges they might face, and by connecting them with aid like subsidized housing, food stamps and utility assistance.

Morrison says because of the out-migration associated with the collapse of the steel industry, Allegheny County has built up years of experience addressing the needs of an aging population. So the county may be better prepared than other parts of the country for an anticipated spike in the senior population in the next few years.

Legislators: Time Not Right for City-County Merger

State lawmakers met Wednesday to discuss the possibility of a Pittsburgh-Allegheny County merger and came to one conclusion: now is not the time. Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato hoped that a referendum on a merger might reach the November 2009 ballot. State lawmakers, however, felt that more information needs to be gathered on a merger before the question can be put in front of constituents. State Representative Dan Frankel, a Democrat who represents the Squirrel Hill area says that an ad hoc legislative committee has been put together to research the results of a merger. In the meantime though, he would like to see some steps taken towards consolidation in areas that can be joined without state legislation citing the fact that both the city and the county have planning commissions and economic development departments as an opportunity to do so. The committee will also look into what has been done towards a merger, what can be done, what the effects of a merger would be, and what potential models of government could be used.

Cambria Township Promotes Turbine Use

On August 12 at 5:30 p.m. Cambria Township Planning Commission will hold a public meeting to discuss possible ordinances that would promote residential use of windmills as a source of energy. Commission Chairman Dennis Simmers says there is a general interest by rural residents to utilize wind power. The potential changes would alter current commercial wind power ordinances. Some amendments will likely include new laws that will require a resident have at least one acre of land for a property to utilize a wind turbine and place the turbine a designated distance from any houses or other structures. The meeting will also include discussion on lowering the nominal fee for erecting a turbine but will not mention the potential for reimbursement of excess energy produced to the power grid.

Similarly, Shade Township Supervisors are permitting the township's solicitor to begin revising its wind turbine ordinances. They hope to change the one-time permit application fee from $2,500 saying that amount doesn't cover the cost of processing the application. E.ON Climate and Renewables is planning to build 28 turbines in Stonycreek Township, four in Allegheny Township, and 3 in Shade Township.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Music in the Classroom

Traditionally lesson plans include original documents or photographs. But an institute at the University of Pittsburgh is training teachers to infuse their curricula with a different type of primary resource. DUQ's Larkin Page-Jacobs reports.

Listen to the full-length story here.

Somerset County Prison Board Deals with Overcrowding

The Somerset County Jail is running into a problem: it has too many inmates. The prison, which has sufficient space for male inmates, is running out of room for females. The jail has only 12 beds for women prisoners and when all are filled, the guards must resort to keeping some women in a holding cell. When the male population exceeds a prison capacity, men can be sent to other state prisons, but since only two state prisons house females, they must be sent to another county prison. The jail then incurs the cost of transporting the female inmates to another county and a nominal fee by the recipient jail. Somerset County Prison Board President Judge John Cascio says contrary to some reports, the Board is not considering paroling inmates as a viable solution to overcrowding. Instead, the the board will discuss alternative solutions at a meeting on Thursday.

Hill District Breaks Ground on New Homes

Thirty-two new homes are going up in the middle Hill District. Groundbreaking for the first four homes took place today at the corner of Wylie Avenue and Chauncey Street. Those homes are expected to be ready in the spring. Prices will range from $131,000 to $179,000. Deferred second mortgages will be available to help low-income buyers. The other 28 homes in the development will be scattered around the middle Hill.

The project is a collaboration between Jaxon Development Company and the Macedonia Development Corporation, which was formed at the Hill's Macedonia Baptist Church. Macedonia Development Corporation Board member Carol Foster Allen says church members saw a need for affordable housing in the middle Hill at a time developments were flourishing in the lower and upper Hill. Allen also works for Northwood Realty, which will be marketing the homes. She does not think the recent foreclosure crisis or economic downturn will hinder sales. Allen says "location, location, location" is still important to buyers and that the Hill is only a 15-20 minute trip to just about anywhere in the city.

Mayor Wants Official Word on Ford

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl says he will not make a statement on Pat Ford's future in city government until he hears from the state Ethics Commission. Ford has been on paid leave from his job as Executive Director of Pittsburgh's Urban Redevelopment Authority since April. The Ethics Commission launched a preliminary investigation into a gift Ford's wife received from a Lamar Advertising executive. But Ford's attorney says that investigation is over and that his client did not break any law.

Ravenstahl says once he hears from the state Ethics Commission, it will be up to the URA's board to decide whether to reinstate Ford. But Ravenstahl says he will give his input. If the investigation is truly over, he says it would be "good news" because it would show that no wrongdoing occurred.

I-80 Could Have Cashless Toll System

The Turnpike Commission wishes to use an all electronic system for I-80 instead of imitating the Turnpike's ticket and cash system. Gentries will be placed in nine locations through the state; those locations are to be selected this fall.

Project Manager Barry Schoch says the cashless system will be the future of toll collection. He says short-distance drivers are encouraged to use an E-Z Pass Incentive program, and long-distance travelers will be targeted. The incentive program will be offered to drivers who wish to waive a tolling fee. Schoch says E-Z Pass is the most inexpensive way to travel on I-80, because most drivers only use the route for a short distance. He estimates that 70 percent of local E-Z Pass users will never be tolled.

The Federal Government must approve for the Commission to toll I-80.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Devices Aim to Prevent Child Abuse

Westmoreland County will become the latest in western Pennsylvania to use an alert system aimed at preventing child abuse. It's called "Watchful Shepherd." It's similar to mobile communication devices that some seniors wear in case they need emergency medical attention. The technology was first adapted for children 15 years ago in Washington County. Donna Nardine, the Executive Director of Watchful Shepherd USA, says the children wear bracelets that have a button on them. The button connects them with emergency dispatchers. Each home also has a unit plugged into the phone line that operates like a speakerphone. Operators stay on the line with the children while police are on their way to the home. Nardine says there has never been a reported recurrence of child abuse in homes that have the devices.

Ralphton Desires Connection to Quemahoning Pipeline

Somerset County officials are working with U.S. legislators to secure funding to build infrastructure which will essentially connect Ralphton with the Quemahoning pipeline, a 22-mile pipeline that supplies water to municipalities from just north of Jennerstown to Somerset. County spokeswoman Kerri Burtner says the funding will be used to connect Ralphton with the Municipal Water Authority of the Township of Jenner which is in turn connected to the pipeline. Ralphton residents currently rely on wells for their water which can pose a problem in times of drought or in the event of a fire. Currently, there is no contractual agreement between the Municipal Water Authority of the Township of Jenner and Ralphton but Burtner says one is in the works. Plans for the infrastructure are already completed. The county will know if money for the project is secured with the passing of the 2009 federal budget.

Climate Action Plan Approved, Holdoff on Stadium Authority Development Action Requested

At a Pittsburgh City Council meeting today, city legislators approved the Pittsburgh Climate Action Plan, designated the Salvation Army building (formerly the Malta Temple) a historic structure, and one council member shared his request that the Stadium Authority delay a final decision on several land parcel development deals until a public hearing is held.

The Pittsburgh Climate Action Plan, a measure sponsored by Councilman Bill Peduto, passed with a unanimous 9-0 vote. The Action Plan offers guidelines that the city can use to cut its carbon footprint by 20 percent. Peduto says the next step will be codification of the guidelines so that they are reflected in city code. He hopes this can be done by December.

The Salvation Army building was designated a historical structure. After being the center of an hours-long debate at last weeks legislative meeting. The measure passed without discussion with an 8-1 vote. Councilman Revered Ricky Burgess was the only dissenting member.

Finally, at the conclusion of the meeting during open forum, Doug Shields unveiled his plan to lobby the Stadium Authority to delay their decision on several North Shore land Development deals involving the firm Continental Development. Shields says that he would like to hold a public hearing on the deals prior to a final decision being made. He says that since the deal will greatly effect the public, their interests and concerns should be heard on the matter. Continental Development had an options agreement with the Stadium Authority but failed to act on it and it has since expired. The parties are currently negotiating a way to extend the expired contract to the dismay of several council members and the grassroots group Northside United.

August is “Produce Month” in Pennsylvania

The state celebrates its 3,500 family farms every August for the contributions they make to the economy. Produce production is a $119 million a year industry in PA. Pennsylvania ranks in the top ten states in production of several fruits and vegetables including number 3 in pumpkins, 6 in snap beans and 7 in sweet corn and cantaloupes. PA Agriculture Sec. Dennis Wolff says not only does purchasing local produce help the state's economy but it also helps reduce your carbon foot print because it takes less energy to get the food to your table. He says it also tastes better because the time from being picked to being eaten is very short.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Wecht Asks For Charges to be Dropped.

Lawyers for former Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht argued to have the charges against their client dismissed using a federal court rule and a Supreme Court ruling. The defense says all charges should be dropped because the judge who declared a mistrial after 54 hours of deliberations did so unfairly. By rule, before ordering a mistrial, the court must “give each defendant and the government an opportunity to comment on the propriety of the order, to state whether that party consents or objects, and to suggest alternatives.” The district attorney’s office says those requirements were met a few days before the declaration of a mistrial when the defense argued for the mistrial after the jury said it was deadlocked. The prosecution says the judge had no reason to assume that the defense’s position had changed at the time of a third note from the jury. The difference from the first jury request to the final was that the members in the first instance only said they were at an impasse while in the final instance they said they were at an impasse on charge number 38. There were 41 charges and many felt number 38 was among the prosecution’s strongest cases. The defense also cited a Supreme Court case where it was ruled that a jury could be biased against either side if the members knew that lawyers had argued to keep them in deliberations beyond their wishes. The defense claims that is why they were unable to argue against the mistrial while the jury was in the room.

Friday, August 1, 2008

152 More School Districts to Receive Laptops

Classrooms for the Future, a Pennsylvania Department of Education program, will give 152 high schools laptops for 2008/2009. The program annually grants funds to high schools to expand technology. This year the program will give out a total of $45 million. Program spokesman Michael Race says the two years of the program have been a success with kids demonstrating enthusiasm to learn by using new technology. The money is doled out according to need, enrollment, and the level of technology a school currently has in place. 10 Allegheny County school districts are set to receive some of the funds.

"Missing Ramps" not missing much longer.

The 67-million dollars missing ramp project where interstates 279 and 79 meet is now 70-percent finished. Penn dot district 11 executive Dan Cessna says you can expect to use the new ramps if you are headed from the North Hills to the airport for a new years day flight. Work will continue on other parts of the project through May. Cessna says because the new ramps are elevated and are curved they will be equipped with a deicing system that will monitor weather conditions and spray liquid calcium as needed. The project also calls for the hill just past the intersection, outbound, to be lowered by 8 feet. Cessna says that will lengthen sight lines, which will increase safety and lessen the back-ups in that area.

Deadline Looms for FACT Referendum

Monday, August 3rd, marks the last day over 200 Allegheny County bars and restaurants will have to collect petition signatures for a referendum concerning the county's 10 percent tax on poured alcoholic beverages. On Tuesday the petition will need to be submitted with 23,0006 valid signatures to add to the ballot the question of whether or not to cut the drink tax from 10 percent to 0.5 percent.

Friends Against Counterproductive Taxation (FACT) member and owner of The Carlton restaurant Kevin Joyce says he expects to have a enough signatures, but he does not know how many they have exactly to this point.

Voters will already see one ballot question concerning the drink tax in November. Allegheny County Council recently passed a bill adding the question of whether citizens would prefer a property tax hike in lieu of the drink tax.

County Chief Executive Dan Onorato has previously claimed that the only solution to an elimination of the drink tax would be a raise of property taxes.

But FACT members, disagree with the county's question and Onorato's claim. Joyce says that the deficit caused by a smaller drink tax could be covered through more strict management of county resources and tighter budgeting.

Onorato has also said that he believes the potential FACT ballot question could be illegal because it would unbalance the budget.

Currently the drink tax is estimated to raise over $25 million more than the necessary $30 million needed to subsidize public transportation.